Colten v. Commonwealth of Kentucky – Case Brief Summary (U.S. Supreme Court)

In Colten v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, 407 U.S. 104, 92 S. Ct. 1953, 32 L. Ed. 2d 584 (1972), the United States Supreme Court upheld a Kentucky criminal statute making it a crime to refuse to comply with a lawful order of the police to disperse. The relevant provisions of the statute read as follows:

(1) A person is guilty of disorderly conduct if, with intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, he:

(f) Congregates with other persons in a public place and refuses to comply with a lawful order of the police to disperse . . . . 407 U.S. at 108, 92 S. Ct. at 1956 (quotation marks omitted) (quoting Ky. Rev. Stat. § 437.016(1)(f) (Supp. 1968)).

In upholding the Kentucky statute, the Supreme Court reasoned:

"We perceive no violation of the underlying principle that no man shall be held criminally responsible for conduct which he could not reasonably understand to be proscribed. Here the statute authorized conviction for refusing to disperse with the intent of causing inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm. Any person who stands in a group of persons along a highway where the police are investigating a traffic viola tion and seeks to engage the attention of an officer issuing a summons should understand that he could be convicted under subdivision (f) of Kentucky's statute if he fails to obey an order to move on. The root of the vagueness doctrine is a rough idea of fairness. It is not a principle designed to convert into a constitutional dilemma the practical difficulties in drawing criminal statutes both general enough to take into account a variety of human conduct and sufficiently specific to provide fair warning that certain kinds of conduct are prohibited. We agree with the Kentucky court when it said: We believe that citizens who desire to obey the statute will have no difficulty in understanding it." (Colten, 407 U.S. at 110, 92 S. Ct. at 1957.)